Lawmakers are corralling behind state Sen. George Gainer’s plan to recruit some dollars recovered after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill for inland counties affected by Hurricane Michael.
The Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee unanimously backed the legislation (SB 1162) on Monday, with some members going as far to commend the proposal’s creativity.
The bill would create the Northwest Florida Rural Inland Affected Counties Recovery Fund. It would use 5 percent of all BP oil spill settlement payments received after July 1 for infrastructure and workforce development in seven inland counties in Northwest Florida.
Currently, 75 percent of the $2 billion state settlement is overseen and administered by the nonprofit Triumph Gulf Coast, Inc.
Gainer’s bill would take its share from the remaining 25 percent of funds. Calhoun, Gadsden, Holmes, Jackson, Jefferson, Liberty and Washington counties would all be eligible for grants under the proposal.
“I feel that if I could get some of this allocation granted to [those counties], they could do some great things up there for some people who dearly need it,” Gainer said.
Gainer, a Panama City Republican, suggested that the coastal counties hit hard by Hurricane Michael — the near-Category 5 storm that swept through Northwest Florida on Oct. 10 — have a comparative economic advantage to the counties not along the coast.
“The coastal counties have a built-in mechanism to attract tourism to beach activities, rural inland counties do not,” Gainer told the panel. “Coastal counties have made progress in achieving economic progress, rural counties and communities have not.”
One of the major problems identified by budget writers this year is getting cash assistance to counties that are awaiting federal reimbursement for costs — like debris removal and emergency protective measures — incurred after the storm.
But there’s also been concern that counties will not take in nearly as much revenue as they have in the past because property tax revenues are expected to fall.
Jackson County Commissioner Jim Peacock told the panel that the aid is welcome, especially given the fiscal constraints that counties like his are anticipating.
“Any revenue that would be generated by this bill would be something that would enable us to enhance economic development in our county,” Peacock said. “We are working very diligently on this and this revenue would be deeply appreciated.”
Sen. Travis Hutson, who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development — the bill’s next committee stop— commended Gainer for sponsoring the proposal, noting that the “budget is tight this year.”
“This bill goes one step further to help that area out,” Hutson, a St. Augustine Republican, said.
The fund would be established within and administered by the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO).
“The DEO must establish an application procedure for awards and a scoring process for the selection of infrastructure projects and workforce programs that have the potential to generate increased economic activity in the rural inland affected counties,” reads a bill analysis.
The fund would not “diminish” any of the money currently set aside for Triumph Gulf Coast, which administers grants to Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Gulf, Franklin and Wakulla counties. Triumph, however, recently created a $15 million loan program to help those counties offset property tax shortfalls expected after the storm.
Eucheeanna Republican Rep. Brad Drake is carrying a similar proposal (HB 191) in the House, where the bill has yet to be heard in committee.